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Contempt findings in Wen Ho Lee case will harm the public good, journalism group warns

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A federal judge's decision to hold five reporters in contempt for refusing to reveal their confidential sources for their reporting…

A federal judge’s decision to hold five reporters in contempt for refusing to reveal their confidential sources for their reporting on the 1999 FBI espionage investigation of former Los Alamos nuclear scientist Wen Ho Lee interferes with reporting on matters of public concern, according to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

“If journalists are not able to uphold their promises of confidentiality, sources will stop talking to them, and it is the public that ultimately suffers,” Reporters Committee Executive Director Lucy Dalglish said.

“Reporters across the country are solidly behind the five journalists sanctioned today for contempt,” Dalglish added. “As Judge Jackson acknowledged in his remarks in court today, these journalists are acting in good faith to protect their confidential sources.”

U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson’s order holding the reporters in contempt found that each of the reporters — Robert Drogin of the Los Angeles Times, H. Josef Hebert of the Associated Press, Jeff Gerth and James Risen of the New York Times and Pierre Thomas, formerly of CNN (now with ABC News) — had violated Jackson’s Oct. 9 order requiring them to reveal their sources for stories related to Lee. Jackson fined each reporter $500 per day until they disclose their sources, but stayed the penalty pending appeal.

Dalglish noted that the contempt order was not unexpected, because of the sweeping nature of the Oct. 9 order.

The case arises out of the Privacy Act lawsuit brought by Dr. Lee in 2000 against the U.S. Departments of Energy and Justice after information was leaked to the press during an FBI investigation of Lee for suspected espionage. Lee was eventually cleared of all charges except one charge of mishandling classified information. As part of the lawsuit, Lee sought the identities of the reporters’ sources in order to establish a violation of the Privacy Act, which prevents government agencies from releasing private information about government employees without their consent.

“This case now goes to the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, where it is very possible that the court will find that counsel for Wen Ho Lee did not exhaust alternate sources of information about the leakers,” Dalglish said.

More information is available on the Reporters Committee’s website at: www.rcfp.org/news/2004/0818leevus.html